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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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An Alternative History

For real, compadres. The site of the main Victoria campus was decided by a thousand-pound donation from a major shareholder in the Kelburn Tramway. The cable car opened in 1902, the Hunter Building in 1906, and students have been forking out or sweating it up the hill to class ever since.

It could all have been so different. Salient presents… the Victoria University That Might Have Been.

In 1902, Victoria University College had no place to call home. Classes were held in rented rooms at the Wellington Girls’ High School in Pipitea St and the Technical School building in Victoria St, an arrangement that irritated pretty much everybody. Students took to the streets in protest. “We have eyes,” they chanted, “but no site.”*

A decision had to be made. The Victoria Council favoured the empty Mt Cook prison on Buckle St, as did the blossoming Victoria College Student’s Association (VCSA). This grim brick building, voted too spectacularly ugly to be used even as a prison, was located on thirteen acres of prime Crown real estate. Perfect! However, Prime Minister Richard Seddon was mighty attached to this particular piece of colonial property. “If the Council persists,” he shouted during one House session, “we shall appoint a Royal Commission to choose somewhere in Palmerston North, Nelson or Blenheim.”

Enter cable-car magnate Mr. Charles Pharazyn. He came like the snake to Eve, offering a juicy thousand pounds if the University were built on the six acres between Kelburn Parade and Salamanca Road. The cash-strapped Council were sorely tempted. However, after hours of discussion, the decision was made to continue fighting for the Mt Cook site. “We must think about the long-term implications,” one Council member is reported as saying. “If we buy the Kelburn site, we sell out on our aspirations for a spacious and attractive campus.”

The battle took another four years. Extra arts classes were opened up in the ministerial residence on Tinakori Rd, and a rudimentary science facility on the Wellington College grounds. Shortly before Seddon’s death, the Council finally negotiated the purchase of the thirteen acres between Taranaki, Tasman and Buckle Streets.

Classes were immediately moved to the old prison, affectionately nicknamed “the Brick”. The central location and luxurious grounds attracted hundreds of new students, and the Council began construction on a second building. Materials were readily available, since Mt Cook was the centre of the Wellington brick and pipe industries, and the Hunter building was officially opened on 30 March 1910.

Student accommodation became the next challenge. A host of boarding houses had sprung up around the campus, including the notorious Miss Ewart’s on Brougham St. A women’s hostel, Victoria House, was set up on Tasman St in 1908 and the male equivalent, Weir House, opened on Brougham St. in 1933.

The Mt Victoria bus tunnel was an obvious choice for Weir House initiation rituals. New residents were stripped naked and sent to run through the tunnel and back. The practice was discontinued in 1967 when first-year commerce student Michael Fay was severely injured after being hit by the Miramar bus.

Scandal struck again in 1969, when an off-duty police officer discovered a hostel student tending several marijuana plants in Brooklyn Central Park. This triggered an all-out offensive by the Mt Cook Residents’ Association, demanding that Victoria students living in the area “shape up or ship out”.

Though the Residents’ Association were reluctant to admit it, the Mt Cook area had benefited hugely from the student population. Lively student flats, cafés, art galleries, theatres and small retailers lined Tonks, Arthur and Buckle Streets, along with the upper stretches of Cuba and Willis.

The Victoria campus was the hub of this creative activity, the jewel in a bohemian utopia. Special schools for architecture, design, fine arts, music, and film-making were set up alongside the old academic staples. The close proximity of the different schools fostered cross-pollination between disciplines. Politics students presented their theses as documentaries; musicians, physicians and mathematicians collaborated on stunning sonic equations.

Enrolment roared in the 1970s and 1980s. Student accommodation again became a problem, as did student transport. Luckily, the area surrounding the campus was nearly dead flat. With the help of a Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) subsidy, cycling to class became the default option. Bicycles could be permanently rented from the Mechanical Tempest at 128 Abel Smith St for around $40, a service still available today (for real).

Thousands of students mobilised against the 1981 Springbok Tour and 1993 fee rises. However, these protests paled in comparison to the 1998-2001 movement against the inner city bypass.

The bypass would have cut through the heart of student space, creating a pedestrian dead zone from the Basin Reserve up Buckle and Arthur Streets to the Terrace Tunnel. After three years of protest action by an estimated ten thousand students, the WCC scrapped the bypass proposal and began developing the light rail system that now runs from Owhiro Bay to Eastbourne.

Fast track to 2009. The Victoria University That Might Have Been continues to develop as a centre of creativity, innovation and excellence. Student activists keep fighting the good fight, gripping the slippery problems of student housing and fee rises firmly by the scrota. Our alumni include Oscar winners, Chief Justices, poets, millionaires, chess champions and comedic geniuses; our academics are among the country’s finest…

Just like the real Victoria, really, only without that bloody hill.

* Stephen Hamilton. A Radical Tradition: A History of VUWSA 1899-1999. (Wellington: VUWSA and Steele Roberts), p. 21.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kerry says:

    LOLs, and did you find out what Pharazyn did to the Hutt City?
    Makes the Wakefields look like amateurs.

    Very entertaining article, Nina.
    Shame the Dominion Museum got that site, then ultimately turned into Massey Welli. Maybe an editon of Trading Places could give VUW execs a turn at running a whole campus on Mt Cook site, instead of just having a go with the NZ School of Music. ;–)

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